TAMPA — Brian Elliott isn’t used to having this many days off.
The new Lightning goaltender started nearly half of the Flyers’ games last season, so going 12 days between starts is something new to an NHL veteran entering his 15th year in the league.
It’s not easy being a backup in the NHL. Playing time is sporadic. And playing behind Andrei Vasilevskiy, who handles the lion’s share of starts for the Lightning, makes ice time even more infrequent.
And for Elliott, who averaged 35 starts a year over the previous 13 NHL seasons, the lighter workload takes an adjustment.
But just because playing time is scarce, it’s far from unimportant. As good as the Lightning were last season, they went 5-7-2 with an .892 save percentage in games not started by Vasilevskiy. That didn’t cost the Lightning in an abbreviated regular season, but for a team now in transition after losing several key members of the back-to-back Stanley Cup teams, having a better record in those situations may be more critical.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper clearly trusts the veteran presence that Elliott — and Curtis McElhinney before him — provides, especially given the long layoffs the job includes. Cooper has said that the goaltender schedule is planned well in advance, so his backups have time to prepare for their next start.
“The job of a backup goaltender is tough because you’re always practicing, but nothing can replicate games,” Cooper said. “And so when you get in those situations, I think that’s where we’ve had success with McElhinney, who was outstanding, and now Elliott, with some of these veteran guys who know how to prepare.
“But they’re mentally strong enough to know what to expect and if you give them enough time to know when they’re going to have a start that they can prepare that way. I think that’s why it’s tougher for younger guys to be backups because they’re just not used to the grind of the NHL.”
After his first start with the Lightning on Oct. 25 in Buffalo, Elliott stopped all 13 shots he faced in the first period this past Saturday and made 24 saves overall to earn his first Tampa Bay win in a 5-3 victory at Ottawa.
“I think just treating the practices like they’re your games,” Elliott said. “And trying to really focus in and not just let a practice waste away, just really focus on all the things that you want to do during the game, because when your name is called you’ve got to get in there and perform. So I’m really happy to get my first (win) with the new team here.”
Lightning practices are far from undemanding, and they often involve drills that use only small portions of the ice so that skaters practice winning puck battles and maintaining possession in tight spaces. That lack of space also forces goaltenders to react faster with lots of traffic around them.
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Elliott said when you’re coming off a long gap, it benefits him to see a lot of shots early and get that work under his belt. And he expected the Senators to come out with a flurry. Relying on the scouting reports helped, which said to prepare for a young, fast team that would look to create pressure out of the gate.
“I can’t put myself in his shoes, but it can’t be easy playing every 12 days,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s not an easy job. He’s such a professional, such a veteran. He knows how to prepare for games and he made a couple of huge saves for us obviously.”
While Elliott has played just two games in the first four weeks, the Lightning will need him more as the season progresses, the schedule gets busier, and there are more games on back-to-back nights.
After the Olympic break in February, the Lightning will play nearly every other day in March and April with 31 games over 61 days and five of their 12 back-to-back sets over those last two months.
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